Alan Seeger, the elder and slightly more poetical of our two young American Legionnaires, wrote a letter today for publication in the New York Sun. He’s canny enough to throw a brief head-fake before getting down to the real business of the letter: an old fashioned appeal to military Romanticism. Much has endured into the war’s first Spring–and much will survive the war, until the “disenchanted” survivors wrest control of the national memory. This, though, is the sort of stuff that will be harder and harder to believe in as the war drags on.
On the Aisne, March 24, 1915.
Among so many hours in the soldier’s life that modern warfare makes monotonous and unromantic there come those too when the heart expands with accesses of enthusiasm that more than compensate for all his hardships and suffering. Such was the afternoon of the review we passed the other day before the General of our army corps.
All the morning in the hayloft of our cantonment we labored cleaning from rifle and equipment, clothes and person, their evidence of the week in the trenches from which we had just returned. At noon under the most beautiful of spring skies we marched out of the village two battalions strong.
In contrast with the sinister lifelessness and suspense that reigns along the front, here, as soon as one is out of the zone of artillery fire, all is bustle and busy operations. Along the roads were the camps of the engineers and depots filled with material for defence and military works piles of lumber, pontoon bridges in sections, infinite rolls of barbed wire, thousands of new picks and shovels neatly laid out, that raised groans from the men as they passed, for Caesar’s remark about the spade having won him more than the sword holds curiously true in the Gallic wars of today, at least so far as our experience has gone…
For fifteen kilometers or so we marched back over hill and vale, singing the chansons de route of the French soldier along poplar lined canals where the big péniches [a flat sort of river or canal boat] are stalled, through picturesque villages where the civilians, returned to their reconquered territory, came to their doors and greeted us as we passed…
On the sunny plateau we were joined by the two relief battalions of the regiment that holds the sector to our left, and all were drawn up on the plain in columns of sections by four, a fine spectacle. We had not waited long when the General appeared down the road. He was superbly mounted, was followed by a dragoon bearing the tricolor on his lance and an escort of about a dozen horsemen. Four thousand bayonets flashed in the air as he rode by. Then the band struck up the march of the Second Chasseurs and under the mounted figure, silhouetted on a little knoll, we paraded by to its stirring strains…
Come on boys, and join the Legion! If America is really going to sit out, then you’ll miss the grandest thing going…
This is unabashed propaganda. The next bit I’ll skip: Seeger relates a friend’s tales of the action on a more contested section of the front, adding a frisson of approaching bombs and pitter-pattering bullets to his tale before returning to the shining bayonets.
After noting that the French soldiers sing songs dating to 1792 (when Germans, among others, marched against revolutionary France, and the first real People’s army began winning its great victories), Seeger rises to a stirring conclusion:
May our hearts in the hour when the supreme demand is to be made on us be fired with the same enthusiasm that filled them as we stood there on the sunny plateau listening to the Battle Hymn of the Army of the Rhine!
All were in high spirits as we marched home that evening. We took a short cut, cross country, for it was already getting dark enough to traverse without danger the field where we passed a while exposed to the distant artillery. The last glow of sunset shone down the gray valley, illumining with a brazen lustre the windings of the river as we tramped back over the pontoon bridge and into cantonment again. Something breathed unmistakably of spring and the eve of great events.
And that night in our candle-lit loft we uncorked bottles of bubbling champagne. Again the strains of the noble hymn broke spontaneously from our lips. And clinking our tin army cups, with the spell of the afternoon still strong upon us, we raised them there together, and we too drank to “the day.”
What would Vera Brittain say to all of that? She’s not, of course, completely opposed to the lure of honor and glory, but… it hardly matters. Roland wants it very much.
Wednesday March 24th
After tea a sort of restlessness came over me which urged me to go into Corbar Woods & stand by the tree beneath which Roland & I sat nearly a year ago, & where first we began to feel that interest in each other which has led to so much. As I stood there, the place was hallowed by the memory of his presence, so that even the bareness of the tree-trunks & the greyness of the distance which showed between them could not prevent my soul from making itself felt in a vague aspiring, and an intense spiritual consciousness of love & ital inner life striving for self-expression.
I felt again keenly the desire to be able to stand alone–the longing for a fuller realisation of my spiritual being & for the perfecting of the intellectual instrument through which it expresses and reveals itself. So strongly, as I gazed at the lonely hills behind me & the faint gleam of red sunset sky in the greyness above, did I feel the element of Unity in me & in that upon which I was looking that I knelt on the damp ground beneath the tree and prayed to that omnipotent Being that Roland might return. Then I walked slowly away, intending on April 20th to revisit the place.
Good God! Is it youth? The cloying breath coughed out in the death rattle of the Long Nineteenth Century? Or is it just fear and death and joy and love and God and country?
It’s as if the blank-faced angels of European cultural history have assembled two-by-two, handing all the good little girls their pair of dolls, veiled bride and black-trousered groom, and all the good little boys their toy soldiers, bayonets a-twinkle. A few years more and the boys will be marching about self-seriously, deep in their war games, while the girls sigh and plot their way to the heights and depths of careening romance.
And then a few more years, and here they are, bright and expensively educated, in love or in the trenches, doin’ what comes naturally.
I know that many of you with an abiding interest in World War One know what will come, in the war and in its writing. But make like you don’t–isn’t there a desperate need for wisdom? For testament after testament, and a new poetry of terrible experience? Or should we sigh and acknowledge that we are a foolish species among many, driven to meaningless paroxysms of love and violence?
Julian Grenfell sent another gossip-and-parcel-receipts letter today, but he closed with news of Spring in Flanders:
We have had a wonderful boiling hot Spring week, with all the birds shouting. It makes me feel terribly restless! Goodbye Mummy darling. I wish I could see you. What urgent “business” reason can I give to get another week’s leave[?]
A rather abrupt ending for the restless Grenfell. But the cavalry are still being kept out of the trenches, and he has seen no action in many weeks…
And, finally, out and about in England, Edward Thomas was for the birds today as well, writing Two Pewits as well as another letter to Walter de la Mare. It would be no exaggeration to say that, for the last few weeks the poetry-writing has been going as well as the poetry-presenting is not. Not only are newspapers and magazines turning him down, but Thomas–long known as both a good friend and a just critic of poetry–is finding difficulty gaining sympathetic hearings in return.
Three days ago he had sent a sheaf of verses to de la Mare–an established poet–with the coy-but-obvious announcement that they were the work of a young poet (young in poetry, but not a young man) who wished to remain nameless. He is writing steadily and–he’s sure of it!–very well indeed. And he is not in the mood for polite deferrals.
Steep, 24 March 1915
My dear de la Mare,
The young poet must be much vainer or more tricky than you are used to. He can’t imagine how he will stand waiting a week or how then he could stand hearing he has gone wrong over metre sometimes & yet (apparently) not always. But he does think you may be right because he agrees with you in liking those 4.* He wishes you could prepare him for the horrible truth (it must be horrible) beforehand. Keep the verses till then by all means…
Are you free on Tuesday evening, or on Wednesday either for lunch or supper? Or tea on Tuesday? Send me a card soon to say which suits or what other time suits, for I might be still up on Thursday.
Thomas then thanks de la Mare for helping secure permissions for his forthcoming This England anthology, but makes it clear–an awkward matter, considering that de la Mare has just won both a prestigious appointment and a lifetime pension, and at 42 is under less patriotic pressure anyway–the his money situation is still so dire as to provide a strong motivation for immediate enlistment. The bitter humor does not soften the sense of desolation.
The Proverbs seem dead but still can’t find a publisher to pay funeral expenses, & I believe nearly all London publishers have been invited. They prefer Belgians as objects of charity, so that if I can get my ankle really mended I shall have to try to serve my country after all. The gardener next door has just been called up & when I heard him talking about it I felt worse than I have done yet.
P.S. I expect I did ask you not to mention the verses to anyone & told you I was sending them about under another na[me]
Then there’s a post-script, connected to the asterisk, above: “*But then the poor fellow likes the others too.”
There’s the rub: Thomas has girded his loins and started sending his poetry out into the cruel, distracted world. He began with those friends, like Eleanor Farjeon, that he hoped, perhaps, would be most sympathetic. But although he is a “young poet,” he is a wily and stubborn old critic, hard-headed about literature and sure of what he likes. So he’s not taking well to criticism, and has already refused the suggestions of several other friends.
Most awkwardly, he showed some of his poems to W.H. Davies, and Davies promptly announced that they were clearly the work of Robert Frost. And Frost, of course–the one poet who understands Thomas’s work, who shares his point of view, and who knows that, while some of Thomas’s poems bear the influence of Frost, so too does Frost bear the influence of Thomas–is now across an ocean. So Thomas seems increasingly to face the choice of changing his poems to suit his readers–smoothing out the rhythms, lightening the tone, sacrificing complexity–or of sacrificing recognition, and the reward of seeing them in print.
He knew, increasingly, that he was a poet of power and subtlety–greater than all the names here, save his friend Frost–and we know, or have learned to think so. But the others, you see, hadn’t figured this out yet. An apt poetic analogue, perhaps, for the backward-looking and unimaginative generals now confronting the tactical problems of modern trench warfare…